The police body-cam video is difficult to watch, especially for anyone who has dealt with a faltering loved one.
Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott is cold, shaking and confused. It is dark. He has left his truck and is wandering down a lonely and frosty highway near Grantsville when an officer approaches him.
Asked where he lives, Ott says, “I sleep down in Salt Lake, and I’m the county recorder.”
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That much is good, although telling the officer where he sleeps, as opposed to where he lives, is a bit awkward. But the rest of the 14:55 recording shows a man who can’t follow simple directions, such as to hand over the driver license the officer can see in his wallet, to provide a home phone number or to produce the cellphone he apparently has used to call for help.
At one point, the officer tells Ott what any viewer has been able to see and hear, “You can’t answer any of my questions.”
Two months ago, Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar first shed light on Ott’s irregular behavior, quoting numerous sources within county government and the recorder’s office who questioned his ability to serve. Questions also revolve around his chief deputy, Karmen Sanone, and a possible romantic relationship. McKellar reported Sanone wouldn’t answer questions about this, saying it is a personal matter. She gives the same response to questions about Ott’s apparently faltering memory. The encounter on a highway near Grantsville, she says, was the result of long-term exposure to freezing temperatures.
But the highway encounter isn’t an isolated case. Many others have noticed problems.
The health difficulties of age, a problem so many of us fear we may encounter, present a host of awkward and difficult confrontations and decisions.
We struggle to separate loved ones from the keys to their cars, and over how to gradually divorce them from the independence they no longer can handle.
But separating an elected official from his office is another matter entirely. Short of a criminal conviction or a lost election, it can’t be done.
That may be frustrating, but it’s far from a crazy way to run a county.
Voters may be confused when they encounter candidates for county recorder, surveyor, assessor, clerk, treasurer, auditor and sheriff on a ballot. These are the least political of all offices. How does one survey property as a Democrat, versus as a Republican? How does a treasurer account for money from a liberal or conservative philosophy?
Jokes aside, each one performs a function that has to remain free from unnecessary influences.
That was hard for me to understand until I sat down many years ago with Vaughn Butler, who at the time was the county surveyor. He told me how, during preparations for the 2002 Olympics, construction crews began tearing up Redwood Road. In their haste, they removed small monuments the surveyor uses to measure property lines.
When Butler told someone in state government to stop the project, he was told no one cared about the monuments, and he could either go along or be replaced.
Butler quickly educated the offical, then told him to come to his office right away to resolve the matter or he would file charges.
If the county mayor had appointed the surveyor, those rights might have been in jeopardy, leading to eventual lawsuits among property owners. Likewise, the county recorder’s charge to accurately record all real property transactions needs to be independent of any outside influences.
That’s the philosophical argument for the independence of these elected offices. But it’s hard to ignore another argument, which is that the recorder draws a salary of nearly $180,000 a year, including benefits.
The county council soon may consider a new policy labeling romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates as inappropriate. The county also has begun a performance audit of the recorder’s office.
But, in the end, the bar may be set too high for anyone to remove the recorder from his job.
Only Ott, his physician and others close to him know the real extent of his health problems. As long as his office workers record things properly, taxpayers may have to content themselves with this.